Every quarter I recommend nonfiction books that a substantial number of high school and first-year college students would find intriguing enough to pick up and informative enough to read. In the process of selecting those books, I end up with a stack of books I’ve bought that aren’t a good fit for the majority students, but which are nonetheless good reading.
Here’s are three books I read this academic year that are not on-target for most students, but which some teachers and/or their students may find compelling reading.
In My Hands might be a good choice for student eying medical careers. Dr. Curley comes across as a personable, caring individual. He makes his patients real, too. Curley writes well but his subject matter involves many long and unfamiliar medical terms. Some chapters appear to have been edited to reduce the number of such terms; others bristle with them. Chapters run about 10 pages.
In Go Back Where You Came From, Sasha Polakow-Suransky traces how America, whose history is the history of immigrant groups, has become anti-immigrant. Polakow-Suransky is a very good writer, but his subject is both complicated and emotionally charged. This isn’t a book for people who get their news in sound-bites or Tweets. A few students—particularly those who are either immigrants or children of immigrants of the last quarter century—will find this book insightful.
Mill Town is a book that should have sold better than Unsafe at Any Speed, but which few readers will even wade through. It’s a prime example of why reporters are trained to lead with their most significant information.
Author Kerri Arsenault grew up in Mexico, Maine, a town dominated by a paper mill that provided jobs for most people in the area for over a century. Arsenault discovers in chapter 16—long after readers have been bore by irrelevant information—that the Environmental Protection Agency shelved cancer risk reports that showed the dioxin produced by paper mills and washed downstream appears in meat, fish, butter, and milk at levels that so far exceed government standards “even one simple hamburger could do a person harm.”
I still have a stack of books that some teachers and students will find good reading. Those can wait for another day.
For the first quarter of 2022, I have chosen three literary nonfiction titles suitable for high school or first-year college students to read as part of an English class. Where a book might also be used for as reading for another subject, I’ve noted that.
Conan Doyle for the Defense
The creator of Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle, once did some sleuthing to solve a murder. In Conan Doyle for the Defense, Margaret Fox tells what happened after an old lady nobody liked was murdered in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1909 and a man who ticked off all the top prejudices of his day was charged with her murder.
Based on what he read in the newspapers, Doyle believed Oscar Slater was wrongly accused. Doyle did his own investigation—he believed the police had botched it—and published a book in 1912 alleging a miscarriage of justice. Slater languished in prison until after WWI, when journalists took up Slater’s cause. Slater was released—but not exonerated—in 1927 after 18 years in prison. Doyle subsequently sued Slater for reimbursement of his expenses. The case was settled out of court.
Fox’s book will have most appeal to students interested in criminal investigations, forensics, policing, and law. The story requires readers to do their own investigation to put facts in time-order and determine which information should be treated as clues.
Winifred Gallagher says “the history of the Post Office is nothing less than the history of America.” She goes on to prove her thesis, starting before the Revolution when Benjamin Franklin was one of British Crown’s two postmaster generals in North America.
The postal service and publishing were closely linked from earliest days. Distributing newspapers was one of the services for which the postal service was established after the Revolutionary War. Shared information was seen as the way to create united states.
The postal service subsidized the transportation industry that spurred the development of roads and encouraged westward expansion. Until post WWI, mail delivery was viewed as a public service rather than as a business. Gallagher discusses how the postal service got into its current predicament and explored proposed options.
How the Post Office Created America lets readers learn about U.S. history by showing how the post office affected people’s actual lives. Sixteen pages of photos help make Gallagher’s text spring to life. The book would be a good English course accompaniment to a course in U.S. history.
As early as the 1700s, people called computers did complex mathematical calculations. In the early 20th century, computers worked for the government where, among other things, they developed the Mathematical Tables Project that would later be critical to the first steps into space.
Just four months before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Jet Propulsion Laboratory made a propeller-less, rocket-powered airplane flight using calculations by a woman, Barby Canright. The U.S. quickly recruited more female computers who worked throughout World War II. Post-war, female computers were again in demand by U.S. military and they began to get more senior positions.
In the 1960s, when digital computers began to take over human computers’ jobs, the women learned to program computing machines to direct America’s space exploration; they became known as “the Rocket Girls.” Author Nathalia Holt takes readers up through 2001, noting the work done by women and their representation among the top brass of the space program.
The Rise of the Rocket Girls shouldn’t be chosen as all-class reading, but offered as an option for students interested science, math, and computers. Holt’s work is interesting but splintered. There are plenty of facts, but readers close the covers feeling they don’t really know any of these women.
I bought all these books from HamiltonBook.com. They offer deep discounts on books that have been in print a few years. All items are new, and all the books are hardbound unless marked otherwise. Hamilton Book has a flat postage and handling fee of $4 for an order of up to 18 books.
Despite their grim topics, any of the three literary nonfiction works discussed here is suitable English course reading for teens and college students. The books’ subjects are different enough that most students will find one of them interesting at least in a gruesome way.
The Lost Eleven
The men who became the “lost eleven” are black men from Southern states who find themselves in January 1943 in Camp Gruber, Oklahoma, being taught to operate the 155mm howitzer. Their commanding officer is sure blacks can’t be taught, but their white battalion commander, Captain McLeod, is determined to show blacks can learn to perform as well as white soldiers. McLeod’s patience and willingness to try unorthodox teaching methods, such as letting the men sing “Roll, Jordan Roll” to help them synchronize their movements, prove the CO wrong.
The men perform well in training and on the battlefields of Europe. As the war draws to a close, however, the artillerymen have been left in France when Adolf Hitler launches his last attempt to defeat the allies on Dec. 16, 1944. A few of McLeod’s soldiers escape the Germans and trudge north through deep snow, still wearing their summer uniforms, until they reach the Belgian village of Wereth. There they find shelter with a local family for a few hours until the SS troops find them and brutally murder them.
If you can read The Lost Eleven without shedding a tear, you’re stronger than I am.
Short chapters with helpful date-place notes at their heads and a list of characters help readers keep their mental place. Large, well-leaded print makes the text accessible to individuals who find many nonfiction books’ text is too dense for comfortable reading. Photographs show military scenes and post-war scenes of Wereth.
For English teachers who collaborate with teachers in other disciplines, The Lost Eleven would be a wonderful accompaniment to student’s history class study of World War II. Students would come away with a far more detailed knowledge of both the foreign war and race relations in the U.S and Europe than most would get from their history class texts. Students could also be led to discover how they can distinguish historical facts from plausible inventions. In that regard, it’s worth nothing that nearly all the authors’ sources are available online.
Despite its subtitle, The Education of a Coroner is not a textbook. Instead, John Bateson has written what might have been Marin County, California’s Coroner Ken Holmes’s memoirs had Holmes written them himself.
Holmes grew up in California with a keen interest in anatomy and in what happened to animals he shot while hunting. He was intensely interested in how bodies worked. As a teen, he considered medicine as a career, but decided to be a coroner or funeral director because those occupations required less college. They also required good people skills, which Holmes definitely had.
Marin County is both affluent and notorious. It’s home to San Quentin, has high rates of alcoholism and drug overdoses, and it’s Golden Gate Bridge is a magnet for people contemplating suicide. In his 36-year career, Holmes meets all sorts of people. He also acquires extensive information about firearms, medicine, crime scene investigation, drugs, and how to talk to a deceased person’s family with sensitivity and practicality. The book is neither salacious or gruesome.
Although The Education of a Coroner might not be every student’s idea of great reading, the book does suggest a great many topics that high school and first year college students could explore in a writing class, beginning with how to find a career that’s not obvious.
The prologue to Ruthless Tide introduces 6-year-old Gertrude Quinn, who would be caught in and swept away by, the Johnstown Flood. Her father, James Quinn, was a prosperous store owner and a worrier. One of the things he worries about was the possibility that the dam 14 miles and 500 feet above Johnstown, PA, would give way. In the prologue, Al Roker sketches traces the causes of the May 31, 1899, flood back to rich captains of industry like Andrew Carnegie who couldn’t have cared less about the people downstream.
The damage from the Johnstown Flood was not just from water, but also from what it carried with it: flammable liquids which burned as the water carried them downstream. Instead of putting fire out, water amplifies it by pouring onto its base, causing it to leap up and away from the water.
Clara Barton arrived June 4, said the Red Cross would take charge, and it did, making the Red Cross a national institution. Johnstown rebuilt, but the industrialists who built the dam to create their private lake above the town, never accepted any responsibility for the damage they caused. The flood led to an “anti-monopoly, anti-big corporations” movement in America, but that didn’t repair the damage or prevent future catastrophes.
You might want to ask if any colleague in the history department is interested in pairing up with you to require Ruthless Tide for both your courses. It is compelling story written for general readers that would be great English class reading when students are studying 19th century American history. Chapters average about 18 pages.
If you teach high school English and you aren’t having students read some book-length literary nonfiction each year, you ought to start.
Nonfiction is the writing that each of your students will be required to read and to write outside your classroom. Most of it (such as your lesson plans) are deadly boring.
Literary nonfiction is nonfiction that isn’t boring because its writer smuggled techniques out of fiction and put them into nonfiction writing where nobody will be looking for them. Then, when unsuspecting readers come along ready to suffer through another boring recital of facts, Zap! the writer pulls a fiction trick. Before readers know that happened, they are caught up in reading the story they thought was going to be a colossal bore.
In an English class, literary nonfiction is an equalizer. It gives those students (mostly males) who gag on Jane Austen a chance to read something as challenging as Jane Austen but on topics that appeal to their interests.
It also gives the Jane Austen fan club crowd a chance to see that techniques of fiction can be used for more than just entertaining readers. Fiction’s techniques can be used in discussions of factual data to show people how and why some nonfiction topic is important to them.
Next week, I’ll post brief reviews of literary nonfiction I’ve read since April 1 that I can recommend for use in high school English classes.
Literary nonfiction books should meet five criteria
To get my recommendation as literary nonfiction suitable for assignment as reading for students in high school or college English classes, books need to meet five standards.
Books must be well-written. They can’t be stuffy, academic, or too technical for an ordinary reader. I prefer books set in in a large enough typeface to be comfortable reading, as I think students also do.
Books must tie in with students’ academic work. History, science, the arts, sports, and the backgrounds of current events are topics that often appear as literary nonfiction.
Books should have short chapters. Students are more likely to read chapters under 10 pages than to read longer chapters. Also, if books have short chapters, it’s possible for two students to share a book and both get assigned reading done without too much hassle. (This requirement is one I recently added after struggling through a book with three 150-page chapters.)
Books should be found in libraries. While not all students have access to public libraries, some will. And the presence of a book in a library is a sign that the book has staying power.
Books should be readily available at second-hand booksellers and book discounters. It’s cheaper to buy hardback books that last years than to pay a licensing fee to rent digital books.
Finding literary nonfiction that meets all five criteria takes some work. Probably half of the books I read won’t work as assigned reading for students for one reason or another. Often the book is good, but just not suited to high school students’ backgrounds.
The best thing about selecting literary nonfiction for your students to read is that you get to read books that will expand your horizons.
From my third quarter literary non-fiction reading, I have three paperbacks to recommend, which each use true historical accounts to illustrate each author’s thesis. None of the books is ponderous reading, but each is likely to present some challenge for teens or young adult readers, beginning with the fact that none of the three is about pleasant subjects. However, each of the books tackles an important topic and each could be used by teachers in several disciplines, either individually or as a team with each teacher contributing the perspective from their own discipline.
Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation
The Greatest Generation. Tom Brokaw. Delta, 1998. 412 pages. Paperback
The Greatest Generation is TV journalist Tom Brokaw’s tribute to the men and women who served in America’s armed forces during World War II. Brokaw presents a scrapbook-like collection of his interviews with military personnel and the families they left behind. Combat plays a minor part in their war years’ experiences.
I’d hoped to find The Greatest Generation useful for classroom use, but I’m not sure today’s high school and college students would see the characters in the same light Brokaw does. His stories are snapshots of what would be today’s students’ great-great-grandparents. The names of most of the famous people Brokaw tells about would draw a blank stare from today’s students.
I’m not sure young people today would understand why Brokaw admires heroes who rejected the spotlight: American culture no longer values reticence. And in some ways, even to me, Brokaw’s adulation seems overly sentimental (as well as overly long).
Stories in the book that are most likely to gain traction with young people are those about people who were discriminated against during WWII: women, Blacks, and Japanese. Because Brokaw’s work is relatively unemotional reportage, students might not find even these true stories understandable unless a savvy teacher pairs them with fictional accounts of similar situations.
Blunder by Zachery Shore
Blunder: Why Smart People Make Bad Decisions. Zachary Shore. Bloomsbury, 2008. 260 p. Paperback
Blunder is a book about how people think and why their thinking goes wrong, even if they are very smart people with very good intentions. Zachary Shore approaches his topic as an historian, rather than as a cognitive psychologist, using famous (and some infamous) historical figures to show how and why leaders in fields such as government, the military, and business made bad decisions with widespread impact.
Shore devotes one chapter to each of eight different types of blunders. He gives the blunders memorable names like “Exposure Anxiety,” which he defines as the fear of being seen as weak, and “Static Cling,” the refusal to accept a changing world. Readers won’t have to look further than each week’s news to some authority figure somewhere in the world making the blunders today.
Shore draws heavily on his knowledge of 20th century events such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam Conflict, and George W. Bush’s post 9/11 War on Terror. I suspect today’s teens and young adults would have little familiarity with those events. They probably would more readily grasp stories of individuals dealing with issues of narrower impact, such as unhealthy eating or depression.
Shore devotes a final chapter to how individuals can mitigate the effects of their own blundering impulses.
Blunderwould be a good book for use by classes in two or more different disciplines, such as history, psychology, and English. Such use would allow students to get direction from three perspectives about how to understand and use Shore’s insights.
Voices from the Holocaust, Jon E. Lewis, ed.
Voices from the Holocaust. Edited by Jon E. Lewis. Skyhorse, 2012. Paper. 305 pp.
Anti-Semitism had a long history in Germany; Hitler made it government policy. Germans readily accepted it because they blamed Jews for their defeat in World War I. Anti-Semitism was Hitler’s way to make Germany great again.
Editor Jon E. Lewis arranges historical documents in chronological order, without comment other than to identify the writers, if known. Beginning with the years 1933-38, the documents reveal how outsiders initially saw the SS as a sadistic type of criminal gang, only later realizing they were getting ready for a war against their enemies, including the Jews within their borders.
Part II (covering events from 1939 until Jan. 19, 1942) shows Germany setting up its extermination program. Documents in this section include Rudolf Hess’s description of the Zykon B gas trial at Auschwitz on Sept. 3, 1941, at which a sickened Himmler, who had never before seen dead people, had to be led away.
Part III is devoted to the Final Solution, 1942-1946. It includes diary accounts of deportations to concentrations camps and descriptions of conditions in the camps. When the British arrived at Bergen-Belsen, there were 35,000 unburied corpses and about 30,000 living inmates.
One of the most poignant stories in Voices is that told by Franciscek Zabecki about an incident he observed at the Treblinka Railway station in which an SS man’s dog found a baby in a thicket beside its dead mother. The dog whimpered and licked the baby, refusing to kill it. The SS beat the dog, killed the baby, and finally dominated the dog into obedience.
Voicesends with a list taken from the Nazi’s own records of the estimated number of Jews killed, listed by both country and by the percentage of the Jewish population annihilated.
It might be good to pair Anne Frank’s Diary with Voices from the Holocaust to show students that Anne Frank’s misery was a broken fingernail compared to what other Jews experienced.
Good writers have an uncanny ability to pack a great deal of experience into a single sentence. Today I’m going to offer writing teachers three quotations from three very different sources from which mature teens and adult students can choose one to unpack and share how the truth of the quoted passage can be applied to some living person (or group) or to some situation in the world right now.
Here are the three items with a note about the source of each one.
A dad’s advice
In John Galswothy’s novel To Let, Jolyon Forsyte says this to his son, who is 20 and in love:
Wishes father thought but they don’t breed evidence.
A widow’s observation
Mrs. Cartwright, an elderly widow who has just lost her husband, says this to Barnaby Gaitlin, the central character of Anne Tyler’s novel A Patchwork Planet:
Isn’t it ridiculous how even in the face of death it still matters that the price of oranges has gone up, and an impolite produce boy can still hurt your feelings?
An historian’s question
Who can say how much a man believes when he has an actor’s temperament and a demagogue’s faith in numbers?
Literary historian Van Wyck Brooks asks this question in his 1936 book The Flowering of New England 1815-1865, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1937. The man of whom he is speaking is George Bancroft, whose multi-volume History of the United States began to appear in 1834.
What students must do
Each of the three sentences conveys more than its words literally mean. They convey something of the attitude of the speaker and his/her relationship to the person or persons alluded to in the quotation. Students need to take into account the context in which the words are spoken.
With an assignment like this, I often have students pair off and take 10 minutes of class time to discuss first impressions of each of the options. Hearing a different voice than their own sometimes sharpens a student’s perspective.
I suggest giving students a limit of 300 words to explain the meaning of the quote they chose and the contemporary person or situation to which they think the quoted passage bears a kinship.
Value of this assignment
This assignment is a good segue from a writing course that’s been focused for a half year on nothing but nonfiction reading and writing to a course that pulls in both literary nonfiction and fiction as writing topics. Used in that manner, the assignment could be used as a benchmark to allow students to track their progress in understanding literary writing. (By benchmark, I mean that you record the grades to show entry-point skill. Course grades should be determined by end-of-course performance and should drop early score when students are figuring out what to do.)
My 2020 first quarter literary nonfiction reading included two books that focus on the formative years of two very different people: twentieth century aviation pioneer Beryl Markham and eighteenth century wannabe author—and surelywas forger—William-Henry Ireland. Both books are readily available, new and used, from booksellers and in libraries.
West with the Night
Beryl Markham. West with the Night. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1983. (paperback) ISBN: 0-86547-118-5
West with the Night is an autobiography written by a pioneering woman quite different from the calico and wagon train pioneer typically encountered in American classrooms. Beryl Markham was born in England but, from the time she was four, the motherless child was reared in Kenya where her teachers and playmates were the natives.
Markham’s story opens with her childhood adventures going hunting barefoot with her Murani friends, seeing “dik-dik and leopard, kongoni and warthog, buffalo, lion, and the ‘hare that jumps.'” She relates an incident which her friend Bishon Singh told her father Beryl had been “moderately eaten by the large lion.”
Markham’s father clawed a farm out of the land, in true pioneer fashion. It was beginning to be profitable when a drought killed it. Markham’s father moved to Peru to raise horses. Beryl, 17, decided to stay in Africa and try for a job training thoroughbreds. Her father advised she saddle up and move to Molo, a town where he knew a few stable owners would be willing to risk having a girl train horses. “After that, work and hope,” he said. “But never hope more than you work.”
Markham was becoming a successful trainer when a chance encounter with a pilot changed her trajectory for a few years. She took flying lessons and became a bush pilot.
In 1936 she decided to try to become the first person to fly solo from London to New York, which meant flying for more than 24 hours in the dark. In the cold atmosphere, the fuel tank vents iced over. Starved of fuel, her plane went down on Cape Breton Island. West became the first woman to fly the Atlantic solo from east to west, but hadn’t made it to New York as she’d hoped to do.
Markham ends her autobiography with that Atlantic flight, but she went on to have further adventures. She went back to Africa and resumed her career as a trainer, becoming the most successful horse trainer in Kenya for a time.
When first published, West with the Night was included in the U.S.A.’s Armed Services Editions, and Ernest Hemingway praised the book, but it wasn’t a great commercial success. The autobiography was rediscovered and republished in 1983. It ranks eighth in National Geographic‘s list of best adventure books. It’s a beautifully written story that both teenage boys and girls can appreciate.
The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare
Doug Stewart. The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare: A Tale of Forgery and Folly. Cambridge, MA, Da Capo Press, 1910. ISBN: 978-0-360-81831-8
If students are inspired by Markham’s autobiography, let’s hope they won’t be inspired by William-Henry Ireland’s story as told by Doug Stewart.
Stewart, a freelance journalist, tells the true story of 19-year-old William-Henry Ireland who in 1795 began writing documents that he passed off as the works of Shakespeare.
His father, Samuel Ireland, who thought William-Henry a dolt, got him a job as an unpaid apprentice to a lawyer who was never in the office. Most of William-Henry’s work was sorting through old documents.
William-Henry’s father, an ambitious author and illustrator of a series of travel books, had a keen instinct for what appealed to the public taste and he was obsessed with everything Shakespearean. He collected memorabilia, particularly items associated with famous or notorious figures. Samuel was not adverse to fudging the truth when it was to his advantage to do so.
William-Henry was not stupid, but he had been a failure in school. He had seen no reason for learning Latin or math since he had no plans to use either. (Does this sound like anybody in your classes?) However, he read voraciously, was fascinated by the theater, and loved to copy verse by his favorite authors in an elegant, Elizabethan script.
William-Henry penned his first forgery more or less as a joke. When his father and his father’s friends were taken in, William-Henry was both amused and angry: He was amused that experts didn’t recognize the deception and angry that his father didn’t think him smart enough to have concocted the forgery and its cover story.
Samuel saw fame and profits if William-Henry could get him more manuscripts. Samuel particularly wanted something by Shakespeare: no handwritten copies of his plays were knows to exist. Samuel pushed his son to produce the desired scripts, not realizing that William-Henry would literally produce them.
Stewart takes readers on a tour through late 18th century London using the psychologically damaged William-Henry and his crazy family as the tour guides. Stewart’s text includes 16 pages of intriguing images, and his descriptions of the English playhouses at the end of the 18th century will entertain anyone with even a passing interest in theater.
The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare will probably be heavier reading for high school students than Markham’s story, because Stewart’s book requires wider background knowledge. You might to have students for whom the book is too tough read Stewart’s article about William-Henry Ireland’s forgery career “To Be…Or Not: The Greatest Shakespeare Forgery” in Smithsonian magazine. On the other hand, the emotional and personality issues that the book raises may make it worth the extra effort for students who have what are politely called “issues at home.”
I intend to recommend Garrett Peck’s The Great War in America: World War I and Its Aftermath among my second quarter literary nonfiction picks, but since Covid-19 has made Peck’s information about the “Spanish flu” pandemic that began during World War I timely now, I’ll share some passages that got my attention—who knew there was an army installation called Camp Funston?— and save my overall comments for July 3.
Because it’s hard to get books now, I’ve quoted passages that English or social students teachers in particular might find useful to help students look at current events in an historical perspective. (Book details below.)
Precursor to the influenza epidemic: measles
As conscripts and enlistees were assembled to go to war, “close proximity became a breeding ground for infectious diseases. Measles struck the U. S. Army in late 1917, killing 5,741 soldiers from secondary infections, mostly pneumonia.” (p. 174)
The “Spanish flu” epidemic began in Kansas
The so-called Spanish flu “probably began in Haskell County, Kansas in January 1918, then soon spread to Camp Funston (now part of Fort Riley) in March.” The flu spread when soldiers were transferred, principally via New York City, for transport in cramped shipboard quarters to France. (p.174)
The name Spanish flu was given to the influenza outbreak because the King of Spain got sick from it. Prior to that, the flu hadn’t made headlines because the press in the U.S., Great Britain, France and their allies was censored. “Spain was not at war, their press was not censored.” (p. 174)
The initial flu outbreak wasn’t particularly deadly. “Most people recovered after three days.” (p. 174)
The Midwest virus turned lethal in Boston
The first lethal strain of the flu virus appeared at Camp Devens near Boston.
“People suffered severe headaches and bodily pain. Bodies turned blue like they were being strangled, while victims coughed up blood and their eardrums ruptured. Many became delirious. The deadly influenza could kill someone in half a day. The flu was especially lethal for young adults, whose vigorous immune systems filled their lungs with fluid and white cells, resulting in higher numbers of deaths from pneumonia.” (p.175)
“Influenza struck the nation’s capital with a vengeance in fall 1918. Thousands were sickened….hospitals ran out of space…morgues soon ran out of coffins. Gravediggers were in short supply as well….About 3,500 people in Washington, D.C. died from influenza.” (p. 176)
Flu was more lethal than war
In World War I, “more American troops were killed by influenza than by German bullets.” (p. 190)
Influenza continued after the Great War ended
“A third wave of influenza would strike [America] as the virus mutated again, but it was not nearly as deadly….People continued getting sick into 1920 and even beyond, though the virus was losing its virulence.” p. 176
The flu went global
“The influenza of 1918 killed at least twenty-one million people worldwide, more than the combat deaths from the Great War. Later estimates ranged from fifty to one hundred million deaths worldwide. In the U.S. alone, an estimated 675,000 people died from the flu. The influenza was the deadliest plague in human history.” (p. 176)
History and English teachers will find lots of “trivia” that they can use to make the events and the literature of the first quarter of the 20th century come to life for students.
People who care about book design will want to hold a copy of the book. The cover design is by Faceout Studio, Charles Brock. The photo is a familiar one of the welcome given troops returning from World War I. The lettering is embossed so you can read the letters with your fingers.
What’s the last nonfiction book you choose to read that wasn’t assigned reading?
Tell me about that book
Was that book:
on a topic related to the subject you teach?
a how-to book?
a biography/autobiography of sports or entertainment figure?
a history book?
something you just thought sounded interesting?
Did you read anything I might be interested in?
What, if anything, from that book have you used in teaching?
What, if anything, from the book have you found yourself thinking about since you read it?
What, if anything, from that book have you shared with someone else?
Would you read another book on the same topic?
Would you look for another book by the same author?
Have you recommended the book to someone else?
Have you signed up for the author’s email list, if the author has one?
Your answers to each of those questions tells me whether you think the book was worth the time you invested in reading it.
Why your answers matter to you
The postmaster in a small community in which I lived told me he hated reading and he hated writing, but every time I’d get a shipment of books, he’d ask, “Did you get anything I might be interested in?” If I told him about a book that he though he’d be interested in, he’d make a note of the title.
Like my postmaster, a large number of your students and mine complete high school without ever reading a book that was interesting to them. The wider the range of nonfiction you read, the more likely it is you’ll be able to suggest books that your students might also find interesting reading.
Students don’t become good readers unless at least some of what they read is interesting to them. To be able to point students to well-written books that may interest them, you need to be knowledgeable about at least some nonfiction titles on topics that may not be your first choice of rainy-day reading.
Why your answer matters to me
As my long-time readers know, nearly all the writing I’ve done has been instructional materials that nobody reads unless they are paid to. Before I drop off my twig, I’d like to write a practical nonfiction book that is read by people who aren’t paid to read it.
You, for example.
For a long time, I’ve wanted to write a book about how to have mutually pleasant visits with people in nursing homes. A former nursing home activities director at one of the homes at which I volunteered is working with me. We have grand plans for a series of short, illustrated, square “gift books” that we refer to as our “Thanks for Dropping By” books. “Thanks for dropping by” is what nursing home residents always said when I left.
If we decide to go ahead with the how-too books, Ill ask you to join my email list. I hope when/if you see the invitation, you’ll sign up, identifying yourself as a potential reader of my practical, nonfiction books for people who aren’t paid to read them.
English teachers have a problem with nonfiction: They think it’s boring. Frankly, a great deal of nonfiction is boring because it was never intended to be useful or interesting: It exists just to document forgettable facts.
An insurance policy and some of your school superintendent’s memos are boring because their entire purpose is to record information that you’d forget immediately if you just heard it. Such nonfiction accomplishes its goal if you receive the paper so you could look up the information later if you need it. It can be boring because nobody actually reads it.
All nonfiction for ELA classes should be useful
The nonfiction we have students read and write in English Language Arts classes ought to be an entirely different species of writing than the forgettable facts documents.
The nonfiction for class use needs to be useful, memorable, and factual. Facts are the protoplasm of all nonfiction.
Nonfiction is presented by the writer as a factual record. Although a writer might not have had all the facts or may have inaccurately presented the facts, readers should assume that the writer is telling the truth as far as she knew it at the time she wrote it.
You must teach students that just because someone wrote a nonfiction text does not mean the author approves of or agrees with the beliefs or actions shown in that text. Some authors deliberately write about ideas with which they disagree. That’s those authors’ way of trying to understand how anyone could hold those ideas.
Practical nonfiction is useful information
One species of nonfiction our students need to be able to read is what Sol Stein calls practical nonfiction. It’s purpose is to convey information so that readers can put it to use. Practical nonfiction is also the kind of writing you and I and our students are required to do, and thus it is the kind of writing you and I are required to teach.
A report on the success (or lack thereof) of the latest marketing campaign is an example of practical nonfiction. So is a book on how to clean your house in 15 minutes a day and an article in the Sunday newspaper about the potential uses the city council has identified for the old knitting mill property.
Each of those nonfiction pieces provides information which the recipient is expected to act upon in some way. The action might be to design a totally different marketing plan, or clean house in 15 minutes a day, or vote either to retain the current city council or throw the bums out.
Most of the nonfiction in newspapers, magazines, and books is practical nonfiction. Practical nonfiction is a several notches above useless nonfiction, but it’s still pretty prosaic stuff.
Literary nonfiction is alluring
Literary nonfiction is totally different from the other two uses of nonfiction. Literary nonfiction tells a true story. It presents unaltered facts about real people, real places and real events using the scene-creating and story-telling techniques of fiction to draw readers into being interested in a topic in which they had no previous interest.
Literary nonfiction is much more difficult to do well than fiction. Literary nonfiction is held simultaneously to two very different standards and must meet both of them.
First, it must be nonfiction and, as such, it is assessed by journalistic standards. That means, information in literary nonfiction must be documented facts that can be verified by independent sources. There can be no invented sources, no fabricated quotes. The literary nonfiction writer has to stick to facts. And one-source stories aren’t acceptable.
Although the literary nonfiction writer is denied the option of making things up, she’s required to set the story in scenes—at specific times in specific places—which are described well enough that readers understand how the time and place impacted the characters.
The literary nonfiction writer also has to use fictional techniques such as dialogue and carefully selected details to develop the story’s characters. That’s where the nonfiction writer must exercise creativity to bring alive revealing scenes without falsifying facts or inventing language.
Teach both practical and literary nonfiction
You and I need to teach students to write practical nonfiction. Every student will be required to write practical nonfiction.
We should teach our students to read literary nonfiction. Literary nonfiction has the ability to make people interested in topics that they would not have suspected would interest them.
Literary nonfiction can open the world to students.